Remembering King

Transcript of King Event at Riverside Church in New York City - April 1, 2008

Claiborne Carson: Well good evening to all of you and welcome here and I'm really glad to see all of you tonight. And this is a very special for me - this is, after two decades of editing and publishing the papers of Martin Luther King, you can imagine how much of a pleasure it is to have a chance to have a conversation with these two individuals. Beyond being colleagues of Martin Luther King and all the historical expertise they can bring to this, they're treasured friends of mine and treasured friends of the Institute out at Stanford. And I just feel that this is very special for me. One of the ways in which I thought - I thought of a lot of ways of starting this discussion and I want it to be a discussion, very open, that they can ask questions of each other.

But I thought it might be useful to put this in context by each of you remembering a little bit about what brought you to that intersection of your lives and Martin Luther King's life during that time from 1967, April 4, when he came here to Riverside Church, to the following year; both of these dates, 40 and 41 years ago. I just wondered Dorothy, do you want to start with that?

Dorothy Cotton: What brought me?

Carson: Yeah. What brought you and Martin Luther King together at that crucial point?

Cotton: Well I met Doctor King in 19' - it was probably 1959, I think. I just look young and beautiful.

[Laughter and applause]

Cotton: But black folk could not use the public library in Petersburg, Virginia where I was living at the time. And Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, the minister at a church where I was very active, invited this preacher who was involved in the leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott; invited him to come up to Petersburg, Virginia to give a speech.

And you know, when we have a program, we have more than just the speaker. We have folk who come up and sing and do poetry and all of that. And I did a poem the night that he came up to speak at our mass meeting in Petersburg, Virginia where we were struggling to just get the library open, so we wouldn't have to go into a little cubby hole down in the basement. And we served a dinner at the parsonage afterwards and there this little man sat. [laughs] I was just meeting him and Coretta even said, "He was a very unassuming guy" when she met him. I felt the same way when he came to dinner at Rev. Walker's house. But I'm serving the dinner, but at some point he asks, "Who was that woman who said the poem?" And I ended up sitting by the table, standing by the table, and chatting with him. So that was my first meeting with his coming to visit. Fast forward - there came a time, very soon after that, when he invited Wyatt T. Walker, Rev. Walker, to move to Atlanta to help him develop this now, this organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; SCLC we of course, as you know, say for short. And since I was very active in Petersburg, helping to train people, especially youngsters in non-violence - I'm embarrassed, I hope you never see any of those workshops. I can do top-notch workshops now. But then I remembered that we were just blowing smoke on people, and pulling their hair, and that really, talk about ignorance of a fantastic subject that I'm excited about now.

But point being: that's what we were doing in the church. We knew that if people attacked us while we were picketing in front of the library and then in front of eventually, other places as well, that we would be attacked. But anyway, we - I told my husband, my then-husband, that I would like to accept his invitation, because Rev. Walker told Dr. King that he would come if he could bring the two folks who worked with him most there - most closely - and that would be me, and a fellow named Jim Wood. So I told my husband I'd go down and help them out for six months and I stayed for 23 years.

[Laughter and applause]

That was the first meeting.

Carson: And I understand Vince, that you were his neighbor in Atlanta.

Vincent Harding: Clay, before I was his neighbor, I met Martin in 1958. Since Dorothy met him in '59 and claims that she is still young and beautiful [laughter] I am even more young and at least as beautiful. [laughter]

Cotton: Right on.

Harding: My meeting with Martin came as a result of a strange decision. But I think a decision that I will hold onto all of my life that some of us made. We were, in '58, a small group who had formed an interracial church on the South Side of Chicago. And five of us men in the church kept saying to each other, "It's one thing to believe in the brotherhood of the children of God in Chicago. But what would it be like if we were living in the South?"

And we decided that we would try to find out. And so five of us: three white, two black, got into an old station wagon and began to drive through the South. We started out in Little Rock, Arkansas and decided to go through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, come back up through Tennessee. But while we were in Alabama, we said to each other, "We can not possibly be in this state and not try to see Martin Luther King Jr. He had already meant a great deal to us. We'd heard of him. We'd attended some of his public lectures. None of us had ever met him, but we called at his house to find out if we could come and visit.

Those were the days before cell phones, before computers, before just about everything. But he was at home. Not only was he at home, but he was recuperating from a very serious stab wound that had been inflicted on him while he was on a book signing tour in New York City. And he was in bed in his pajamas! And when we came to the door, we asked Coretta if it would be alright if we could visit with him. She, in her wonderful Southern hospitality, went into the bedroom, told Martin about these strange guys who had come to the door, and asked if he would be willing to let us come and visit with him.

We went in. King was just absolutely gracious, ready to talk with us, to hear about what we were doing, about how we had driven through. He congratulated us for having gotten that far and still able to operate. And then at the very end, he said to the other black guy and me," You know, you guys are part of one of the peace churches." We were members at that time of a Mennonite church. And he said, "You understand what nonviolence is about. You guys ought to come back down here and help us." That was 1958 and by 1961, I had married and Rose Marie and I had decided to go South and participate in the movement. But that meeting in his bedroom in Montgomery, Alabama, was my first contact with King. Later on, we became neighbors, we became friends, we became co-workers. We even - notice my size, if you can imagine it, remember his size - both King and I, thought that we could play basketball. [laughter] So at some of the retreats, we even did that together. So those are my first contacts with Martin.

Carson: And I just wonder if you would just follow that. One of the things I wanted to talk about here at Riverside, is later on in the struggle when - Martin never had any doubts about opposing the war in Vietnam, but he did have some doubts about taking a public stand given his stature as a civil rights leader. And I'd like you to try and get into the dilemma that he was in that led to the speech here at Riverside.

Harding: From the very outset of his life and his ministry, King was very clear on the terror that war does to the human community. Especially the great damage it does to the weakest members of the community and to the poorest members of the community. There was never any question in his mind about that. And in addition to that, he was strangely enough, as a Christian really believing that Jesus was serious when he said, "You've got to find some way of dealing with your enemies other than trying to beat them up in the way that they beat you up. You've got to find an alternative way to respond to evil." King believed all of that from the beginning of his life as a pastor. And so when the war in Vietnam began to rise up as a major issue in American society, there was no question in his mind where he stood on that. But the questions that people were asking him, as you saw from the excellent film that we just looked at together was: Did he dare come out publicly as the major voice of the freedom movement, did he dare come out publicly against a war that Lyndon Johnson, who was considered an ally of the movement, took as his own war? And Martin had to struggle with what that meant, he also had to struggle with the fact that even into the late '60s, the war was not a major place where people took a stand.

Up until the time he came out, Spock came out, others began to speak, the war was still a kind of public agreement, that somehow, for some reason, this is what we ought to do to - keep the Communists at bay. And so there were lots of people who supported King, who supported SCLC, who supported the freedom movement with their money and with their enthusiasm, who King knew would definitely be very unhappy about his coming out against the war. And that was the struggle that he had within him; whether or not, how he could do this as a public position. It was very clear to him that he had to do it as a public position at some point. When? How? Those were the things that he was wrestling with.

Carson: And that divided the SCLC staff, didn't it?

Harding: Very much so.

Cotton: Yes but -

Harding: It divided the family. Excuse me.

Cotton: I'm sorry.

Harding: No, go ahead. You are right. You are on. It's your turn.

Cotton: No. I don't know about that. But I just, I get worried when - well actually, a little scared that we will go away with a very somber, sad, down-in-the-spirit feeling about the work, the civil rights movement and that whole - and the struggle. Do you see what? You had talked about earlier, that we wanted to also make sure that we knew the - oh, what adjective can we use? Sort of the warm human - you mentioned the warmth, the way he responded to you all when you went into the bedroom, was the way he was with people all the time. I just want to make sure we inject that.

And that you also know, would you believe, we really had a ball? We had a really good time working in the civil rights movement. And sometimes - and he loved being the life of the party. There was not, there were not - the somber moments came, the sadness came, especially when the few people that were actually killed, or when we were really up against some horrible, violent response to something that we had done. But he was always the life of the party. I just really want people to know that. And to know he was a happy, jolly fellow and really kept people laughing. He could even laugh about some of the horrors. For example, when some big speech about racism and white folk hating black folk and response from black folk and mentioning other groups as well, but once we were in the car, on the - we called them the "people-to-people tour" - and with his great chuckle he said, "I know how to solve the race problem; we should pass a law, that everybody in this country should marry somebody of different race. It would be illegal not to." Now you're supposed to laugh at that, so where is your humor? He laughed when he said it and we laughed in the car, those of us who were on the people-to-people tour. But before we finish tonight, I want to, if you will allow, to share some other anecdotes and some of the fun - some of the fun things we also had with him. How he was indeed the life of the party and great fun to hang out with, to be with, and to work with, even when we were in the heat of battle.

Carson: Well-

Cotton: Is that okay?

Carson: Just to say that Vincent wasn't saying that this was necessarily a somber decision to take a stand on the war in Vietnam, but he did take it.

Cotton: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Carson: And since we were here, one of the things I wanted to do was just spend a little bit of time discussing what happened here at the church.

Cotton: Oh, of course, of course. Sure.

Carson: Do you recall any of the discussions that took place within the staff?

Dorothy: Oh, absolutely. He was - that was one of the moments when he was distressed, was sad, was hurt by the response, the negative response, that he got even from people on the staff who were arguing about whether he should take this stand and that he obviously did, against the war. And people on the board of directors, as a matter of fact, someone - a letter came, supposedly drafted by the board and agreed to by the board of directors giving him reasons why he should not take this stand, which were alluded to, spoken about, in the video that we saw. And Vincent is so right on target. I keep Vincent's books closest to me, as he analyzes and really delves into the rationale and the responses and the way we - the way we respond to this, this really, this icon and hero. And I'd like to say something about the iconization, is that a word?

Carson: You just made it up.

Cotton: Oh, OK. That what we do when we make someone like an icon. But he was wounded. I said to someone who was at my home once, filming. I pointed to a yellow chair because he left a meeting. It was part - he even was sort of chuckling about this, almost in the middle of tears, it was sort of a back and forth. He left the meeting, because everybody, even in the staff, they were arguing; I was home with a little flu bug or something and didn't go to that meeting. But people were arguing and there came a point when he decided to just come out of the room.

And this was a way he often functioned. That we, everybody around the table, there was you know, Wyatt and Elsie T. Vivian and Jose Williams and all of the staff that all of that you know, arguing about whether he should take this stand and reactions to it. And he decided he was going to come and he said, chuckling, "They don't know where I am, but I'm going to give them a half an hour to finish their argument." And at an end of staff meeting we could often argue about some step we had taken or were about to take, and he would sometimes sit very quietly. But when he was ready to speak, a powerful hush would come over the room. And when he gave his opinion and made up his mind, we knew, we knew where he was at. I know that's not grammatical, but we really knew where he was when he made a decision; to go forward on the decision that he had made.

Carson: And once he had made that decision, Vincent, you were one of the people he reached out to, to help him formulate what would say here, here at Riverside. Do you want to say a few words about your involvement in the crafting of the speech?

Harding: Martin knew that he would be speaking with deepest integrity, if he spoke from the ground of a religious community, because his convictions about the war were ultimately not what we would call political, but profoundly religious and spiritual. And he kept hoping, looking for an opportunity to speak out about the war and to speak for another alternative on a religious ground. So when Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam asked him to speak here, for their major gathering, he knew this was the place that he ought to be; upstairs of course, in the main worship area of the church. But at the same moment, as Dorothy can testify, he was still, as you saw from some of the film, running all over the country trying to raise money for the program, trying to explain the meaning of the program to the country. And he didn't feel that he had the time to do the kind of speech that he wanted to present to clergy and laity concern, and the kind of speech that he wanted to present to the world, as the rationale for his opposition to the war.

And so, I guess he thought his friend, who was at that time a college professor at Spelman College, had more time than he did. And he asked me if I would draft the speech. He asked me that, I think Clay, because he and I had talked many times in many ways about things related to the issues of the war. We knew where each other was and he trusted where we were, and trusted that we knew our mutual positions. And so I was very, very happy to be asked to play that kind of role. And it was over a Christmas holiday when my family had gone up to Chicago to be with the larger family and I was alone there in Atlanta, working in the basement study that I had. And it was in that winter, that Christmastime of 1966 that I was able to work that out and develop it in a way that I felt was really King. Not my putting words into King's mouth, but my, in a sense, trying to grasp the words that belonged to both of us, and asking him to be the spokesperson that he wanted to be in the situation.

Carson: Now as you indicated earlier, the reaction to this and the difficulties that he faced after taking this stand, not just on Vietnam, but soon afterwards. Well a few months afterwards, launching the Poor People's Campaign. All of these decisions led to an enormous amount of pressures on him, attacks against him, all of the things that we saw displayed in the slideshow. What was it like? You were on the staff during that time, you were close to him. What was it like going through that period?

Cotton: Well at the same time, there was a real exhilaration. I remember people gathering. We had, we used the phrase, "Sent out a call" for people of - not just black and white together anymore, but white folk from Appalachia. There's an interesting story about a white preacher who called our office and said, "Hello, is this the SCLC office? Dr. King's office? Well can I talk to somebody who's high up?" And I said, "Andy?" The women's movement hadn't happened then so I was - and Andy said, "Well ask him if you're high up enough?" And you all don't get some of the humor in that! That just cracks me up right now. But when I think about the fact that I yelled for Andy, because they wanted to talk to somebody high up. So all this stuff. We can talk about I mean there are so many aspects about the civil rights struggle, that you know, we can come from many like many places. But that was a little thing about the gender stuff, you know. But how we also contributed to it. But Andy said, "Ask him if you high up enough?" But he called himself Preacher Red and he said, "I'm calling, because I want you to know, I hate Dr. King." And I said, "You hate? Why do you hate Dr. King?" He said, "Well, I want to meet with somebody," And I ended up going to Pascal's Restaurant. That was the place where black folk could go that they owned. It was owned by the Pascal brothers. And I met this man. You know, white folks could always go where we were, but we couldn't always go where they were, in the days of apartheid. Some of you all don't remember we had American-style apartheid in this country.

But we met there and he went on talking about, this man told me. Actually, I have tears in my eyes, I can think about it now and feel, just get all choked up. He talked about living in that whole area of Appalachia where - see, I grew up thinking all white folks were rich. I didn't know there were places where there were a bunch of white folks who also weren't rolling in money. But anyway, because of his saying that he felt left out and that's why he hated Dr. King and that was the only way he knew how to put it. But from that moment on, I knew that we were going to send out a call and start recruiting to bring people in from Appalachia, from the Indian reservations, from everywhere we could. People on our staff and people that each group of us, staff contingencies knew, we sent out a call to ask people to come to Atlanta because we were going to talk about how we would take our concern about poverty in this country to Washington, D.C. and stand and be before the powers at the seat of government and say, "We want something done about this and we're here to make that statement." But so I'm seeing, I can visualize right now, this gathering where we started talking about and taking the initial steps to bring together all of these people for the first time. Because you see, it was "illegal," I say that in quotes, for black folk and white folk to even be in the same place and you were always certainly suspect. But there was great energy around that and I wish you could feel the energy and feel the excitement. And every time we had a major initiative coming, we were excited. We were really motivated we were turned on, as one way of putting it, because we were doing something that we knew was right and people were responding and so they came to Atlanta.

Carson: I think listening to you, we can understand the excitement. [laughter] But in any case, one of the things that I wondered if you could do is just kind of think back in terms to some of your experiences that would give you some, give the audience some idea of what Martin Luther King was going through during this time. Because I get the feeling that what you're saying is, there was some discouragement. There was also some exhilaration.

Cotton: Definitely. Absolutely.

Carson: And that these two things went together. Can you describe that a little more?

Cotton: Well as Vincent alluded to his being, the way he welcomed them the first time you came to his home. He was such a people person. He was so warm and welcoming and even in the middle of challenges and criticism, one could still feel - there must be an exact word for it - this enjoying and liking and feeling motivated to be with people. That's why I like to say, even that his very, very last speech on April 3, that to not have planed a speech and to give one of the best speeches he ever gave. And we could describe that night. I flew over with him.

Carson: Why don't you?

Cotton: When they asked us to get off the plane at some point. But amidst the exhilaration, in the midst of the feeling, the challenges and feeling the dream turn into a nightmare. His own words, right? In the middle of all that, it was like a back and forth; exhilarated by what we were doing, exhilarated by the rightness of our cause and never in - and some of you may have heard, it's recorded somewhere, the last lone voice speaking for the non-violence that I will do. So the more people criticized him, it seems to me, the more, I don't know. Vincent attuned to, or he delved into, moved into a deeper understanding of non-violence and was more and more motivated to continue deepening his understanding and bringing it to bear on what we were about. Don't you agree?

Harding: I think so. I think we also ought to remind ourselves of the context in which we were all operating at that time.

Cotton: Yes.

Harding: And the context that Martin felt very deeply.

Cotton: Yes.

Harding: This was the context of the urban explosions all over the country and young people at the ground of those explosions. I remember hearing about when that first came to public attention in a powerful way through the Watts rebellion. Martin had just finished - and you were there - this tremendous pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery. Had been able to push towards a Voting Rights Act, had made a tremendous victory for the movement in that situation. But as soon as he heard about what was going on in Watts, he went out there. He didn't sit in the South and think how wonderful he was. He went out there, to a rough situation, as I see it Dorothy, because he loved those young people and knew that they were in trouble and knew that even though he had no plan, no blueprint for what should happen next, he did know that he ought to be present with them.

When he went out there, he met some of the young men who were most involved in the situation in Watts. And the place was still full of smoke, and some fires still burning. And he tried to talk to some of them to ask about what they were doing, why they were doing it and one of them said to him, "Well Dr. King, we won!" And he looked at the community just in shambles. And he said to them, "What do you mean, you won? Look at this?" And the young brother said to him, "Well at least we got everybody to pay attention to us!" Now I think that's at the heart of where King was coming from. He had begun on deeper levels than ever before, to pay attention to especially the younger folks in the black communities of this country; saw what they were going through, as far as the terrible kind of ironies of the war and their role in the war. And so Clay, when the opposition came, he knew that the opposition could not take him away from the attention that he felt he had to pay. So as Dorothy said, he was greatly discouraged by people who were supposedly his friends opposing this. But at the same moment, he knew he had a stand that he had to maintain and he would continue on with that, no matter what the opposition was, and no matter where it came from, including the President of the United States.

Carson: And that's why he had to be in Memphis, right?

Harding: Yes, yes.

Carson: The same thing. And you were beginning to tell the story of coming to Memphis on the last occasion. I don't know if you want to continue that?

Cotton: Yeah, yeah. There's a span of time between his going out and really getting into and really seeing and relating to what these young people were going through and their frustration, and his really feeling that so deeply. But if you really fast forward, I think you would agree with this Vincent too, that there came a time when people all over the country, and even a few other places, where people were calling on him to come and fix it. I remember a phrase he used at a moment when he was really tired and really worn out. He said, "I really feel like I'm like a fireman, that a fire started, and they call me to come and put it out, and I can't be a fireman." I don't know if you ever - I heard him in his, in one of his really down moments, he wanted to be there, but knew everywhere, because people were indeed calling him from everywhere to come and put out the fire, as it were and fix things.

Harding: But not to take care of the causes of the fire.

Cotton: Right, absolutely, absolutely. Not to take care of the causes of it. And how that reminds me that, I'm sure we don't have time tonight to talk about the training program. A lot of things are going through my head right now. One thing that I am really just gung-ho to get done and I feel very apologetic to my editor tonight. I should have had a book done by now. [laughter] And she's sitting right back there and I should have had that book done. Because I really - when I first met Malika, I knew that I was really getting very concerned about people remembering Dr. King only in the context of a march. People don't even know we had a training program: the Citizenship Education Program. Andy Young who actually was the administrator, and he got the money and it was funneled through his congregational church to keep this training program going that was actually started at the Highlander Folk School - but people - that story needs to be out there. So folks, don't think we just had a march. Even on campuses, students used say, "When are you going to have another march? When are you going to have a march?" Well of course I tell them now, "Well do we need a march? Well if we're going to march, you'll have to do it. My legs hurt now. I just had a hip replacement." But students still ask. They're waiting for somebody else to do it. Sorry, I don't mean to be a preacher here, but maybe I do. I'm not a preacher but I do bootleg a little gospel once in a while.


But to know that we had - the best program that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had, SCLC, was the Citizenship Education Program. And the reason I wasn't there when the bullet actually struck. There were Rev. Abernathy and Bernard Lee and names you wouldn't remember, some of them.

Carson: This was going to Memphis?

Cotton: Going to Memphis. And we were on the plane to go back after the march of the demonstration, the protest - being there to support the sanitation workers. And you saw when it was disrupted and some friends and colleagues had to get him out of the brick throwing. What we realized is that we went there the week before not having done what we always did, which was send a team of our people in there to do training in non-violence, and getting our best organizers to train marshals and actually do a non-violent demonstration in support of the sanitation workers. So, but we got on the plane and did indeed hear the pilot say we have to disembark because there had been a bomb threat. The call said that there was a bomb on the plane. And we scurried off the plane and went back in. And they brought the dogs and checked it out. They found no bomb and so we got on the plane and went on, as you said, to Memphis.

We were all very tired and that very night, April 3, the day before he was killed, he was sprawled on the bed in his room at the Lorraine Motel. And there were about maybe 10 or 11 people sprawled around in the room, I being one of them. And some of the guys who also were touted as the one who disrupted the march before, throwing bricks and breaking windows and that sort of thing, which was not our thing. But we're going back, I say, "To do it right." And as we're sprawled around talking about how I was going to come over and begin doing some citizenship education workshops, and talk about non-violence, and using our organizing staff to plan - train marshals, but the phone rang. When the phone rang, it was Rev. Ralph Abernathy who was already over at the church. At the - it's blocking my memory.

Carson: Mason Temple.

Cotton: Mason Temple. At the church. The church was crowded so Ralph Abernathy and I think Andy went also behind him there. They walked into the church - and Bernard Lee - they walked into the church and the crowd went wild. And when Ralph said to Martin on the phone, "Martin," when he called, "you have to come over here. These folks went wild because they thought you were right behind me." But seeing Martin sprawled on the bed, no intention of going to make a speech. He just wanted to be there to help plan how we were going to get our whole team back into Memphis to do some training, to do some organizing, and to have a grand march the way we did it which was - and we really learned that even from the Albany movement, that we didn't go into a place where we had not trained people to organize. And so he made that last speech: "I may not get there with you, but my people will get to the Promised Land." He had not planned to make a speech, one of the best ones that he made. But "mine eyes have seen." Well, you know. "I've been to the mountain top." That was the last speech.

Harding: Dorothy, I think that I would like to stand with your editor.

Cotton: [laughing] Oh God, she's right there.

Harding: Because the book that you're working on, as I understand it, is not just a book to let people know that we weren't just marching all the time.

Cotton: Thank you Vincent.

Harding: The book that you're working on is a book helping people to understand how we tried to educate folks for democratic participation and responsibility. [applause] And the reason why you've got to finish that is because we need that now. [applause]

Cotton: I'll give a quick example of what happened in the citizenship workshops. Because I think about it as I notice what's going on now. In my main session, we worked five days of really grassroots people. We worked together, Andy, Stephen McClark, and Ben Mack, and some other names you wouldn't remember. We had recruited people; Fanny Lou Hamer went through my workshops and started recruiting from the delta of Mississippi to bring people in to that session. But one woman kept complaining that, "I'm so glad to be here, that you all recruited in my area because every time I go down to city hall they treat us like we're not even there." We just got all kinds of reports. And the third day she started repeating that story to me and finally she said - I said, "Well, who does this to you?" She said, "Well the city clerk." And I said, "Well, why aren't you the clerk?" And there was a - I'm sure there's not a valid term called a loud silence but the 40 or 50 people in that room. But we had to shock people into realizing that if things were going to change we had to change them ourselves. That's really the centerpiece and the core of what I really want people to know. And as I think of it now it's like, what's that last line in the June Jordan poem and Bernice Johnson Reagan?

Harding: We are the ones -

Cotton: - we've been waiting for. We are the ones we've been waiting for. That's what people learned in these workshops. If we're going to get the right to vote and go into public places, and be treated with dignity, and be treated as citizens, if that's going to change, we ourselves will have to change it. What I want to look at is the lessons from that period that are applicable now.

Harding: Right now, yes.

Cotton: If things are going to be different, if things are going to be better, if things are going - if we're going to have - bring to bear our experiment in democracy and make it work and as Martin said, "America be true to what you said on paper." If it's going to happen, we the people are going to have to do it. So to ask this woman why she's not the clerk, see that was shocking to her because this black woman never thought that she could be a clerk. But there are people now who don't think that we can have any impact on making our democracy real. And that's why we need citizenship education for the 21st century. You didn't ask me to say all that.


Harding: And not just for black people.

Cotton: Absolutely not just for black people! Oh, please let me say this.

Carson: I couldn't stop her.

Cotton: Do you know our theme song for the civil rights movement? "We Shall Overcome. We Shall Overcome." Then we made up a verse. We made up verses all the time: [singing] "Black and white together." We saw Barack Obama at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and when - I've got to go down and give them a little lesson because when they sang "Black and White Together," Barack Obama put his head down like this and he didn't sing that verse and I don't either. The reason being, it is not about black and white together. It is about what Martin Luther King said, "We must learn to live together on this planet or we will perish together as fools." And this is - I'm getting too political. But when you see somebody put forth a vision about learning how to be together on the planet. And so again it's not just black and white; it's brown and all the spectrum of humanity. But that's what the citizenship training would be today.

Carson: I'm going to have to interject just a second, believe it or not, since I've experienced this reluctance to get these people talking that we've really reached the end of our time. But I wanted to give each of you an opportunity, given that we're on the 40th anniversary of the passing of Martin Luther King, to give us a reflection. And I think I want to start with Vincent. You know that last year that started here at Riverside and ended exactly a year later. Give us something about either your thoughts then, or your thoughts reflecting later, about that period. I just wonder if you could offer that. What did it mean to you?

Harding: I think Clay, that I would first want to ask a question of us all. And that is as we looked at that audio visual presentation, I think we must ask why we have we had such a hard time remembering those years within our body politic? Why is that almost like a strange story to us? Forty years ago. I have a feeling that it's because that part of the story requires a tremendous level of maturity of a nation to live in the kind of balance that King was trying to put forward. And that on a certain level, Obama is trying, probably hoping, that he can put forward; and that is the balance between seeing the great possibilities of this nation and at the same moment, seeing its great failures to live up to its responsibilities. To see both of those things as the truth; not either/or but both of them being the truth. And recognizing, as Alice Walker said at a conference that I just came back from, "What it means to realize that somebody died for us?" To put that truth into our lives. What do we do with that now? [applause] Those are the kinds of questions that are on my mind right now. So I would just leave that there to ask: How can we grasp that truth and move with it? Again to quote one of my favorite presidential candidates, "Move to figure out how we create a more perfect union than the one we have now." That was King's work. I suspect strongly that that's our work. And indeed I really believe that there's no other more important work for the citizens of this nation than creating a more perfect union.

Cotton: I go back to that line that we quoted a few minutes ago which, I think it's the last line in this June Jordan poem, "We are the ones we've been waiting for," because I find it very - it seems to be very difficult for us to really take that in and own it and even personalize it. I am the one that something is waiting for. In the car coming over here, I shared with Vincent how I was sharing with a group of educators, and I was talking with one woman about how in workshops sometimes, we often talk about how you organize a non-violent campaign. Because on college campuses, students will walk up sometimes and say, "Well I really want to do something, but I don't know what to do." And everybody is so apathetic and I say -

Carson: What about that attitude of waiting for the next Martin Luther King?

Cotton: Right. That is just the point. If you are talking about them being apathetic, what do you want to do? And they have not a clue. So I'm saying to these educators, if you could help the students and you, yourselves focus on something to work on. And later this educator said to me, as we were gathering to leave that room, she goes, "You mean that rhetorically don't you?" And I just want to focus there. "No ma'am I don't mean it rhetorically." We keep pushing away the challenge that it is us. It is we who we are waiting for. That is so hard for people to let in. And folk think that we had this blueprint laid out of how in terms of how this struggle would unfold. I like Vincent's language of the - I quote you a lot when I talk about civil rights movement. Somewhere you wrote: "The movement to advance democracy in this country," and I know you say it also in different ways. I certainly don't need to push Vincent's books, but look up his books. I never go anywhere without "Hope and History" that Vincent wrote, in my little bag because he looks at the hope we get from what we went through and how we ought to teach that history. Any way, look up "Hope and History." But my thing is helping.

A major point for me is, indeed, what - how do we not sit back and wait for somebody else, but in whatever circles we move, wherever we move and live and have our being that we find something, someplace to serve, something to which to give our energy and our time. It is not about being young or old or infirm or whatever. There's something that all of us can do. But first we have to have a vision of making alive these documents on which the country was found. So it's a personal charge that I want us all to take on. That we will decide now that we will indeed do something. One more thing: students, you see Martin Luther King did not know that he was going to go to Montgomery and get involved in an activity that would lead to what it led to. He didn't know that. But here this new preacher is in town and when they needed a leader, there's this preacher who had so prepared himself. And I like to use that example if they want to talk about Martin Luther King, use that as an example of studying and learning all you can learn because you never know. If you work with young people, you never know when you're going to need something that you studied and learned. But he'd studied all of these philosophers and theologians and non-violence, and Gandhi. And so if you can even take that into yourself and use it with the young people you are around, I think you will be making a contribution to learn all you can learn and it will be helpful.


Carson: One of the things that we've learned is that communication has to be two ways. And I wanted to make sure that this is not just a one-way conversation from us to you, but that we have at least a little bit of time for some comments and questions from you in the audience. So does anyone want to start that?

Kate Ellis: Clay it looks like we've got a gentleman right here.

Maxie Jackson: Maxie Jackson, I work at WNYC. First of all, I wanted to honor all of you for the great presentation tonight and I appreciate and respect your intelligence, your, energy, and your enthusiasm for the man and for this topic. So thank you for that. I wanted to address your issue about wanting to hear more joy about King. And I was two years old when King passed so I never knew the man. But six years later, my father worked for The King Center and so I got to experience his family first hand. And some of my most joyous days as an eight-year-old and in those early days was playing with his children. So I experienced his joy through his children so I can speak to it from that perspective. What I wanted to ask you about though, was this issue that I fight with, with regard to the civil rights movement, and that is succession building - succession building. And I'm wondering if King in any of his papers and any of the conversations that you might have had with him ever discussed this notion of succession building within the movement. Who did he see as continuing the struggle if, in fact, he saw himself as someone who might not be here for the duration of it.

Cotton: Well it would be very hard for me to respond to that because I don't think anybody actually really plans to make there exit from the - I'll say one thing about this. Rev. Abernathy became the vice president because they were great personal friends; families went to the movies together and things like that. So it was an honor bestowed upon his good friend. But you don't get voted into what Martin Luther King did. You don't get voted - and he didn't walk around thinking of himself as - he knew that he had taken on a great challenge and maybe we could even say burden and he took very seriously his work in the world, the mission to which he was called. But in terms of somebody to do what he was doing, I didn't feel that. Vincent, maybe you did. I didn't see him as naming somebody. And people often ask: Why didn't they name Andy Young or they named Jessie or they named some people. And it didn't work like that from my perspective. We can say more about that but I don't want to talk too long here.

Harding: Let me respond to that question by suggesting that it is problematical to put it like that. If we're talking abut a democratic organization then it does not depend upon someone saying, "And this is going to be the next leader after I am finished." That's a monarchy. That's not a democracy. Dorothy was the keeper of the democratic succession process. The little woman from Macomb, Mississippi was the next leader. We didn't have to have a King copy. Indeed it was absolutely important that it not be a King copy, partly because King copies get shot down too easily. But it was also important that it was not a King copy because too many people are ready to stand around wondering where the King copy is going to be coming from.

Cotton: Keep waiting for them.

Harding: Dorothy keeps answering your question. We are the successors. You are the successors. When Martin King was at his best, he knew that the successors were going to be in places like this all over the country. So that would be the way that I would encourage us to think about it. I don't want another Martin Luther King Jr. I want you.

Cotton: Yes!

Harding: Because you are the one who are going to have to create what is necessary for this time. Martin did what he did in his time. Now we have this time to work with and we'd better work on it because it is badly in need of work.

Stephen Smith: Kate there is a question just down at the end of this row if you want to go down. Come down this way. There we go. Then I will get over to you sir.

Millard Southern: Thank you. Thank you. Good afternoon. Or good evening. My name is Millard and I'm a first year student at Union and I'm also taking Dr. Collins' Martin, Malcolm in America class.

Harding: Good, good.

Southern: My question is: what can we learn from King's legacy as we look at the situation with Pastor Jeremiah Wright and what's going on with the media?

Harding: I didn't hear your full name.

Southern: Millard Southern.

Harding: Millard Southern. And where did you spend your childhood Millard?

Southern: Where did I?

Harding: Where did you spend your childhood?

Southern: From Chicago, the South Side.

Harding: Oh boy, okay, see I don't get to know you until I hear about where you spent your childhood. Then I begin to get some sense of who you are. [laughter] I think personally, that King is a wonderful model which, in his own way Jeremiah was following. He was speaking truth to power in the way that every Biblical understanding of the prophet teaches us is absolutely necessary; that the prophet is not a patriotic cheerleader. The prophet is one who stands up in the midst of the people and focuses her voice especially towards the leaders of the society and says, "This is what God desires of us and this is what you are doing." And as Martin said right there, "If you keep doing it, you are going to hell." You heard King saying that. That was not Jeremiah. But they are the same voice because they come from the same place. And in both of their cases they were inspired by this teacher who said, "We have got to give the best we have to the poor. That's where our best energies and best capacities should go to. And anybody who is messing over the poor is doing the wrong thing."

Smith: There is a question back here. And I also want to remind everybody that Dr. Carson is one of our distinguished guests too. You're allowed to talk to sir.

Harding: Aha! Good. Good. Get in Clay. Get in.

Cotton: Yes, please.

Alan Gilbert: Alan Gilbert and I grew up in Washington, D.C. and Manhattan. I noticed in Obama's recent speech, which I was very fond of, a coordination between war and the sucking of money out of the society, the demonic suction pump that King spoke of here. I was wondering how - what you thought, it's something that moves me, about his thinking about whether capitalism in its modern form is consistent with democracy? Especially in the last year. That as I remember some lines about who owns the water and stuff like that.

Carson: Well one thing that I would say about that, since I have been invited to say a few words -

Harding: Yes!

Carson: Is that if you pose it as capitalism and democracy, or communism and democracy, democracy is consistent with democracy. You know one of the things we need defined is when these economic systems are inconsistent with democracy and be able to name that and do something about it. King described himself as an anti-capitalist. That didn't mean that he was a communist. It meant that he found capitalism inconsistent with his value system as it was practiced in the United States. And he said that and he took the risk of controversy in saying that. I think sometimes one of the things that I would find in terms of supporting what Vincent was saying about, what we were really talking about is a democratic movement is that democracy requires that certain fearlessness about going up against tyranny wherever we find it. And I think that often Americans, like people around the world, don't have that sense of fearlessness. You know Martin Luther King had it and we find people in our society who do have it. But that's what to me, that's what citizenship should be; is citizenship means that those people in power work for us. They're our servants. And we need to remind them of that constantly. I'm thinking of the film that Orlando Bagwell made, "Citizen King." I think that your film expressed that in terms of King's role in a democracy.

Harding: Alan I just want to press a little bit onto the end of Clay's comment, to come back to my sister Dorothy and the work that she had to do. We are badly in need in this country at this time for an understanding of what it means to be a democratic citizen. We've gotten very little training along those lines. Some of us are going to have to develop an educational process for democratic participation. How do you do that? What does it mean? I think that that's one of the most important things that we have on our table from now on. And obviously, as Clay was saying, even though we don't usually think in these terms, democratic citizenship demands courage, demands compassion, and in the case of my friends at the SCLC, demands tremendous creativity.

Cotton: I'd like to - I'm sure this is very simplistic because I could never deal with huge systems. Somebody at one of our workshops I remember wanted to deal with the drug cartels. And I knew this person in Canton, Mississippi was not going to deal with the drug cartel. It's like I needed to bring it down to bite-size pieces where she and they could handle parts of it and find something they could do. Because if we aren't careful we might name something so big like a huge system, and we never do anything because it is so big and we don't find a way to get in there. But of course if we start doing some work - there were people, take Fannie Lou Hamer there in Ruleville, Mississippi - starting to work trying to get people to register vote. But eventually there was this big drive because she met a whole lot of other people, as she came to workshops, who were working on the same thing. And so a movement evolved. As we were talking in the car, we didn't have a blueprint laid out but somebody would take a step and then other things would be added onto that and it would grow and grow and grow until you had a big movement. So if you say, "the system," we won't do anything. I think we'll get into a kind of paralysis by analysis. And we need to keep it where we can do something. I just want to make sure we don't let Dr. King, becoming this icon, dis-empower you because we'll say he is so big up there. He was a kid on the street chasing the girls just like you all. Well I don't know whether you chase the girls or not. But you see what I'm saying. [laughter] Don't let his bigness dis-empower you. And that's what we do to our leaders.

Smith: We'll take two or three more questions, and the - three, four something like that. And then before we all leave we have one more short clip of Dr. King's - of Dr. King that we want to finish with. We'll make time for questions I just want to let you all know what the battle plan here is.

Orlando Bagwell: Yeah, I want to first thank all of you for this wonderful evening and for all the thoughts that you've put in our minds. I'm not sure how to frame this as a question. First I wanted to thank them for feeding us tonight and giving us so much to think about. But it seems in this campaign or in this election period that there's a fear of leadership that leads from conviction. It seems that there's coded language that in some way says -

Cotton: Can you all hear him in the back?

Bagwell: Do you hear me in the back? I'm sorry. I'm saying that I'm worried in this election that there is a sense that there is no room for a leader in a political environment that leads from conviction. We talk about King and his decision to take a stand against the war and it was based on a basic belief in a way in which one moves through life in a sense, and a sense a conviction around the wrongness of this war and the wrongness of what war represents. And I'm wondering whether you can be pragmatic and lack conviction or whether you can have conviction and be a pragmatic leader? I think I have an answer - my own answer to that but there seems to be a lack of confidence in that kind of leadership in a present day. I just wanted you to comment on that.

Carson: Vincent do you want to give a try at that?

Harding: A try. Whenever I hear us talking about the present that we are bound in now, Orlando, the old historian in me just finds it almost inevitable to contextualize ourselves. When we talk about what kind of leadership we are able and ready to respond to at this moment in history, I think it's important to remind ourselves of what moment in history is this? How much do we need to remember that this country as a country is less than 250 years old? Now that is for me a very important thing, but even more important is the fact that this democracy, as a democracy, as a multi-racial democracy, even trying to figure out what that means, has been doing that for less than 50 years or so. From my point of view, this means that where democratic leadership and capacity are concerned, we are still a developing nation. And we don't recognize that that's the case. And so whether we are talking about an Obama or whether we are talking about the kind of energy that a Jeremiah Wright brings to a situation, we are just still learning how to deal with all kinds of capacities, focal points, what does democracy mean?

I think Orlando, that without going to sleep on it, I would say we have every right to call upon each other to be patient with ourselves and work very hard in the mist of the patience to grow up as a country. And to grow up and figure out: What is the kind of leadership that we really need? Because the country of 2008 is very different than the country of 1948. And so we've got to be figuring this out as we go. And I personally enjoy that. So I'm not too worried about what we can live with, what we can't live with. I think the most important thing is to do what you just did, and that is to identify our troubles here and our difficulty. And then say, now what do we do to create a more perfect union? So all of that is simply saying, keep asking that question, Orlando, but I don't expect an answer any time soon. I do expect that we will be trying to figure it out all along the way and probably at least for the next 50 years trying to figure out: What is the kind of leadership that this society really needs? And what is the kind of leadership that we ought to be voting for? And to follow Dorothy, what is the kind of leadership that we ought to be? I think that all of those are issues that your question raises, and that I'm glad that it raises and that I hope that we can continue our wrestling with it.

Smith: We have a question right here.

Germaine Booker: A question and a comment. My name is Germaine Booker. And 40 years ago I was one of the first speakers with Dr. Heschel less than a block from here at the first Martin Luther King memorial service. And to sit in this church and to hear the kind of panel we've heard tonight - it just, it restores my faith. It is unbelievable. And I certainly hope that this tape and these comments can find a wider audience because it answers so many questions that we need answered. And Dorothy is of course the hallelujah chorus. I mean she really is. And we really need your book. We need it, need it, need it so desperately.

Carson: We all agree on that.

Booker: I'm glad you touched upon Obama not being able to sing "Black and White Together." I mean I think that that is very significant. And I think that we need to think about that as we think about Obama.

Cotton: We can sing, "All people together." [singing] "All people together." It will fit in.

Booker: Yeah, it would. But I wanted to sort of ask, where do we go from here? Forty years later, Dr. King's last book was "Where Do We Go From Here?" And he laid out a blueprint for us. So where do we go from here?

Cotton: I really don't mean to be flip, but if we had time and we were doing a workshop, I would throw the question back to you. Nobody can give you a quick - can give us, can lay out a quick, simple answer to that. Answers to questions like that must come from the people. And one thing I want to emphasize, even as we honor this man. I loved him dearly. We all loved him and he loved us; but it was a people's movement. He did not tell Rosa Parks not to go to the back of the bus. He did not tell those students to go sit in, in Greensborough. He did not tell Fanny Lou Hamer to go fight for the right to vote. He didn't tell them. It was a people's movement. So where we go from here? If you are reading or have read "Where Do We Go From Here?" We've got to - I don't know, in our churches, clubs, organizations, around our kitchen tables, where ever. We, we the people are going to have to decide where we go from here. I can tell you what I think, but that may not turn you on. But we have to decide. And we have to take that seriously. You have to decide. We have to decide where you are. And I want to caution us please. Let's do it - let's don't do it with such long faces because nobody will join your movement. [laughter] Sing a little bit. Say some poem. Dr. King loved to sing. We had a good time together. And I'm not just saying that. If we had time and we were doing workshops, I would insist that we learn some of the freedom songs and you would make up your own freedom song. If you walk around with a long face thinking you're going to start a movement, nobody's gong to join your movement. You're going to be by yourself. [laughter and applause]

Carson: All right. That's great. Well I realize that we've got a number of other questions that we could ask but I think we had an understanding from the very beginning that this conversation would have to come to an end and continue in other forums. I think that we've identified -

Cotton: He did have his hand up a long time. I saw him.

Smith: That's good. That's good. Here we go.

Dudley Thompson: You're going to hold it, thank you. Good evening.

Harding: Good evening.

Thompson: My name is Dudley Thompson. I am a pan-Africanist. That is a people's movement. I defended Jomo Kenyatta in 1952. I say that because I have a question to ask. What really I would like us to pursue is a statement by Dr. Harding. He mentioned freedom several times. He mentioned democracy. The question of the day: What is democracy? I am quite certain that everybody in this room here has at least one common thread. We have chosen the democratic form of government with all its faults, as the best possible form so far. I think we all agree on that. And why have we chosen it? Because it guarantees each of us freedom; freedom, that's what democracy does. I comment this because freedom is something we take for granted like good health. You don't know about it until you lose it or until it's threatened. But freedom has these two qualities. It gives you the right to chose and it gives you the ability to resist those who stop you from choosing. Those are the elements of democracy.

Smith: And your question sir.

Thompson: My question is this. What, if any, was Dr. Martin Luther's statement or relationships to the pan-African movement? Thank you.

Cotton: Mr. Historian?

Harding: I'm going to trust that Clay will be able to document anything that I would say about this. But what is very clear to me my brother - by the way you didn't abide by the rules that I set and I think I may be older than you.

Smith: All right. Here we go.

Thompson: I don't know if you are older than I am. But I am 91 years of age.


Thompson: My time.

Harding: That is wonderful. Orlando said, you're in charge of the rules now.


Thompson: I spent my time largely in Africa, 11 years there: three years in Oxford, 18 years in Jamaica, and the rest all over the black Diaspora. That's my home.

Harding: King, like almost all of the people in this country who were deeply involved in the post-World War II struggle for the expansion of democracy in America. King, like almost all of them, was very conscious of the anti-colonial movements all over the world and especially in Africa. They preached about it. They talked about it. It was in the black newspapers every week, what was going on in the pan-African world and in the larger general world of the anti-colonial movements. So I would simply say that King was grounded in this. That is why King wanted to be in Ghana at the time of the transfer of power there. That is why King became an early voice against apartheid in South Africa. King was always much, much more than the narrow caption that we put on him: Civil Rights Leader. He was in many ways, a humanist for the liberation of the world community, and Africa was very much in his sights.

Carson: Well with that question and that answer I'd like to thank Vincent Harding, Dorothy Cotton and all of you for coming this evening. Thank you very much.


Smith: And thank you to Claiborne Carson, Dr. Carson.

Carson: I would also like to thank all of those, and I would hesitate to name everyone who was involved in organizing this evening. And I just feel like I'm a guest here who was invited to come. Thank you so much for everything. And I understand there will be -

Smith: We are going to close now just very briefly with an excerpt from King's sermon on February 5, 1968, when he explained to his congregation at Ebenezer how he would like to be remembered. And as you will hear, he preached his own eulogy.

Martin Luther King Jr. (audio recording): Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator; that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have 300 or 400 other awards, that's not important! Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody! I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry! And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind! I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.

If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he's traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain. If I can do my duty as a Christian ought, if I can bring salvation to a world once wrought, if I can spread the message as the master taught, then my living will not be in vain.

Yes Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason! I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.

Back to Remembering King.